Santa Cruz Symphony, Nov 17, 2013

From subtle and delicate to wild and crazy

By Scott MacClelland

The love affair between Daniel Stewart and the Santa Cruz Symphony continued in its own fashion Sunday in Watsonville. A full house at the Mello enthusiastically reveled in a mixed bag of Ravel, Shostakovich and Beethoven. Showing off some his keen marketing instincts, Stewart asked those in the hall who had just silenced their cell phones to use them to take photos of the orchestra and post them on line.

Then he got down to his conducting duties by leading the five-movement concert suite from Ravel’s Mother Goose, those enchanting tales of Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Beauty and the Beast, and others. The music shimmered in its fragile delicacy, the winds showing off their individual talents in fine style. Except for Laideronnette and the final moments, the music remained below a skillfully paced mezzo-forte.  

140299_750The real treat—make that thrill—of the day was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, a tour de force for the soloist, the hair-raising 19-year-old Austin Huntington, and a powerfully expressive warning to those Soviet citizens who chose to look the other away while Stalin consolidated his institutions of fear and repression. Stalin was dead six years when Shostakovich wrote the work for Mstislav Rostropovich, in 1959, but this portrait of the dictator’s legacy couldn’t be more vivid, not least for the composer’s mockery of Stalin’s “favorite” folk song in the final movement.

The opening theme is borrowed from a Shostakovich film score, while the second theme reorders the musical monogram Shostakovich gave himself (D, E-flat, C, B), yet both are cut from the same cloth and are heard again in the last two movements. The intensely driving first movement gives way to a tragic second in which the sorrowing cello song is accompanied by a counter melody on the second violins, then a mournful clarinet. In its closing moments the cellist must navigate a lengthy path of treacherous harmonics, those lightly touched overtones that can easily howl or squawk if not dead-on accurate. Not less treacherous is the third movement, an extended solo cadenza that demands mastery of every trick in the cellist’s playbook, then goes, straightaway, into the bristling finale. Mr. Huntington, who won last year’s Irving M. Klein International String Competition, handled the Shostakovich like a veteran, and performed with unmistakable confidence.      

The first and third measures at the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begin with a 1/8th rest—followed of course by those famous three short and one long notes. When Stewart gave a big gesture on that rest and then tried to give another one on the first short note he guaranteed a messy attack by the orchestra. He did it twice running. He should know better.

The orchestra did in fact come through the work with powerful effect according to Stewart’s passionate embrace of the famous music. But his podium gyrations were wildly excessive and, as such, often confusing, his body language sometimes awkward and off balance. In the last movement, his subito piano (suddenly quiet) crouches were ineffective, and, with arms flailing, he even managed to throw away his stick.

Stewart inherited an orchestra with an uncommonly high order of discipline which should not be taken for granted. This kind of exuberant body language, which was constrained to purpose in the Ravel and Shostakovich, is not going to produce better results in the long term. A symphonic love-in is fine for a while, but the focus is supposed to be on music, not choreography.